Long lines of Venezuelans stood at two international bridges near the city of Cucuta on Saturday – some carrying children on their shoulders – waiting to have their documents checked by Colombian officials.
Venezuelan border guards dressed in green uniforms helped control the crowd.
Venezuela‘s government had ordered the borders with Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao, Brazil and Colombia closed in February as the opposition tried to deliver food and medical supplies into the country.
Most of the aid was provided by the United States, a key ally of opposition leader Juan Guaido who declared himself to be Venezuela’s rightful interim president in January. But Maduro dismissed the aid as an infringement on Venezuela’s sovereignty and prohibited it from entering.
In May, the government reopened borders with Aruba and Brazil, but the Simon Bolivar International Bridge and the Francisco de Paula Santander International Bridge with Colombia had remained closed.
Announcing the frontier’s reopening on Friday, Maduro said: “We are a people of peace that strongly defends our independence and self-determination.”
Al Jazeera’s Alessandro Rampietti, reporting from the Colombian capital Bogota, said the reopening of the border came as “a relief for the tens of thousands of Venezuelans who rely on crossing into Colombia for food and medicine they cannot find back home”.
The border closure had forced many Venezuelans to cross illegally to get basic necessities that were all but unattainable in Venezuela, he said, adding: “But that has become more difficult during the rainy seasons and these paths are also controlled by criminal groups.”
Maduro’s announcement caused worry in Colombia, Rampietti said, with “a number of mayors and governors of Colombian regions on the border called for a national security meeting, fearing an increase in the pace of the exodus of Venezuelans”.
More than a million Venezuelan refugees and migrants live in Colombia, where the government and aid agencies have scrambled to provide housing, food and healthcare to their ever-growing influx.
On Friday, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) said that 4 million Venezuelans, or almost 15 percent of the population, have left the country to escape its economic and political crises.
The UN agency also said the number of Venezuelan refugees and migrants rose by a million after November, indicating a rapid escalation as conditions deteriorated and a conflict between the Maduro government and the opposition intensified this year.
Rampietti said Maduro’s decision on Friday indicated his government “does not see the situation on the border as much of a threat as they did in the past months”. That’s because the “the opposition gave up on their plans to try and move US aid inside Venezuela,” he said.
The once-wealthy oil nation is now facing severe shortages of basic goods and hyperinflation that is expected to surpass 10 million percent this year, according to a recent International Monetary Fund estimate.
The chaos has been further aggravated by US sanctions on Venezuelan oil exports and has forced an estimated 5,000 people to leave the country each day, according to the UNHCR.
Children at risk of statelessness
Hollywood actress Angelina Jolie, a special envoy for the UNHCR, on Saturday urged the international community to provide more support for Colombia, Peru and Ecuador – the three South American countries receiving the most migrants from Venezuela.
Speaking in Cartagena following a meeting with Colombia’s President Ivan Duque, Jolie said more than 20,000 Venezuelan children were at risk of statelessness.
The parents of Venezuelan children born abroad often struggle to register their baby’s birth, either because they do not have access to an ever-shrinking number of Venezuelan consulates or because they do not have migration papers.
Duque said he hoped Jolie’s visit would alert the world to the seriousness of the migration crisis.
Relations between Venezuela and Colombia, who share a land border stretching 2,220 kilometres, have been broken since February 23 when Duque announced his support for Guaido.
Dozens of countries around the world recognise Guaido as interim president, saying Maduro rigged his 2018 re-election, but their support has not been enough to unseat Maduro, who still has the backing of the top military brass.
Maduro accuses his foes of plotting with Washington to bring about a coup.